Above: John Walsh (’19) with a Kuwaiti national in his desert camp.
John Walsh (’19) started studying at IWP after a 30-year career enlisted in the National Guard. After completing the Executive M.A. program, John transitioned to a senior civilian role working with the National Guard Bureau. Below, he discusses some of his experiences at IWP.
Could you tell us a little about your background and experience?
I started off as a traditional National Guardsman while also working in sales. I was good at sales, but this type of work was not fulfilling for me. The only time I enjoyed what I was doing was when I was with the Guard.
After five years in the reserves, I got the opportunity to go on active duty and took it. I took a 50% pay cut, but it was worth it. I spent 25 years on active duty. During that time, I worked predominantly in Army aviation. I deployed to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2004-2006, and I was in Kuwait from 2008-2009.
What are you working on now?
I currently work at the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Virginia, which is the headquarters for the Guard. I work with both the active and reserve components of the Army, as well as our sister branches and international allies. My initial assignment was through X Corps Solutions as a Senior Analyst for Aviation, and I have since moved over to Special Applications Group.
How did you become interested in international affairs/national security?
As I started working in the military and my career progressed, I became more and more interested in this field. I kept reading about these topics independently, but, as a senior enlisted guy, there weren’t opportunities to attend advanced academic programs like the War College. Those opportunities were only for senior officers.
So, I started looking for a program that would cover the same material to attend after completing my military career. Living less than an hour from Harvard, I looked there and at other Boston area schools. I assumed I would go there but they were primarily academics, as opposed to national security practitioners.
Then I met Dr. Lenczowski. I did some research, and I found the Executive M.A. at IWP. I really wanted the opportunity to work with faculty members who had actually done this national security work. The program really helped gel together a lot of my experiences. I’m glad I did it. It was deeply fulfilling.
Did studying at IWP change your thoughts about international affairs?
Not necessarily, however, it did give me more tools and more insight into these topics. I’d say the biggest benefit that I got out of IWP was my academic writing. During my career, I mostly wrote short memos and reports. IWP really helped me develop my academic writing and research.
Also, IWP stressed a broader viewpoint. You have a more myopic view when you’re in the trenches – even if you’re Secretary of the Navy, you’re still typically focused on only one part of the bigger picture.
Did your studies at IWP impact how you approach your profession?
My studies only strengthened my desire to continue to work in the field. I am not in uniform or carrying a gun anymore, but the IWP program helped me prepare for work in a civilian role supporting national security.
Now I hope to always work in the national security field. After having a career prior to the military, I realized that I couldn’t go back to a purely civilian life – I had to contribute.
What do you feel are the biggest decisions you have made so far in your career?
To get out of my comfort zone… and not in a reckless manner. I followed this advice: do your research, work hard, and follow through, and it will work.
Going to graduate school in my 50s was a culture shock. Before that, I was planning on retiring. But I now realize that I wasn’t done, and I’m just starting.
When I left my sales job to go active duty and take a huge pay cut initially, my peers said I was nuts, but it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.
Your experience at IWP was unique. Can you tell me a bit about what stood out to you?
The challenge of transitioning from a 30-year military career to an older graduate student was challenging. I had not been to school in a long time. I did not go for four years of undergrad right after high school: I did my undergrad over 10 years part-time while I was enlisted. Just being a full-time student was an adjustment. But I was able to adjust eventually and pull it off by determination and working with staff and faculty.
IWP did have the resources to help me. If someone is considering pursuing a graduate program, I would just highlight how welcoming and tight-knit IWP was and is. I went to several open houses, and everyone was incredibly kind and welcoming. I looked at other schools and did not feel that same atmosphere, for a variety of factors.
People from different walks of life all come through IWP: military, international students, recent grads, and mid-career folks. So glad I did it!